Being able to play does not necessarily mean you are able to perform. Performance involves specific skills and requires practice. Having clear artistic ideas, preparation and managing stress are vital pre-requisites to a convincing performance. It is important to practice playing in front of others as often as you can and use every performance as a learning experience for the next one.

Optimal performance

Optimal performance is commonly referred to as ‘being in the zone’ or in flow and is characterised by positive feelings of engagement, enjoyment and a strong sense of present-centred focus when engaged in an activity. The performance of music inherently contains the characteristics that encourage flow feelings due to the unique mix of sensory, expressive, cognitive and spiritual elements that come together in the moment of performing.  During concerts, musicians usually move in and out of the flow state, due to the fact that flow itself is fluid and changeable.  There are many factors that cause flow feelings to alter, such as when musicians become distracted by external elements or conversely, get swept up in the expressive beauty of the music.  Elements that can draw attention away from the essence of the performance itself, such as competitiveness, egotism or excessive self-consciousness reduce the ability to access flow feelings. It is when musicians feel a deep connection with the music, their fellow performers and their audience that they can begin to feel the transformation and joy of flow.

Importantly, you can learn to access flow feelings for a range of performance contexts through applying flow focus points during practice and performance preparation sessions. These focus points enable musicians to embrace challenges as fun opportunities and to set sensory and expressive goals when their attention wanes. The key point for all musicians to achieve the state of optimal performance is to learn to have a present-centred focus and to self-regulate towards positive feelings during practice and performance. 

Performing under pressure (PA)

A performance situation creates both physical and mental arousal. This is a natural in-born response that helps us to be stronger, faster and better focused. Physical symptoms such as a rapid pulse, change in blood pressure, perspiration and trembling are the side effects. Some musicians try to suppress these unavoidable arousal feelings, however, it is wiser to learn to take them as a sign of excitement rather than a negative experience.

Lack of confidence, wrong behavioural models or destructive thoughts and other problems can turn a positive reaction into something negative such as anxiety or even stage fright. It is typical for   anxious musicians to focus their energy on their symptoms and to lose task focus whilst worrying about failure. Non-anxious musicians are more task-oriented so that they hardly notice their own somatic arousal.

In communication science self-focused thoughts are called performance-orientation. Performance orientation is a state of being where too much awareness is placed on motoric action at the detriment of musical communication. On the other hand, communication-orientation helps the performer to place their awareness on expressive and communicative aspects. 

It is possible to learn techniques to turn our natural heightened arousal to create an energetic and vivid performance.

Performance skills (PA)

Performing music requires several other skills other than being able to play the piece both technically and musically well. The base of a music performance is communication. That’s why performing skills can be defined as musical communication skills. The better a performer is able to communicate musically with an audience, the better the audience understands and experiences the musical message. One essential part of musical communication skills is to be able to modify one’s playing according to the space, acoustic, nature of the performance and other factors. 

Optimal performance skills in flow (EN)

Many musicians can recall times when they felt swept away in a performance where everything seemed to be happening effortlessly and joyfully. This is not just a matter of luck! This has a lot to do with how they have practised and if they have applied sensory, expressive and creative focus points whilst preparing their music. The development of these skills helps to keep you joyfully engaged in your playing when you are under the pressures of performance. 

Three key flow focus points for performance skills

In performances, if you have fallen out of the flow zone you will notice that your enjoyment levels drop and you feel tense and distracted and become aware of negative self-talk and mind chatter. When this happens you need to be able to apply quick flow focus points to get yourself back into the zone again. There are three key focus points that can help you to self-regulate to experience more flow feelings. These are:

  1. maintaining a comfortable body feeling 
  2. immersion in the sensory experience
  3. expressive communication

Use  questions with the flow focus points

As soon as you notice any unwanted tension or stress, adjust your body comfort level by asking yourself questions such as, ‘Am I moving my body in a comfortable way?’  or ‘What can I do to relax more as I play?’ To immerse yourself more fully in the sensory experience of playing, check your connection to your instrument and the music, by asking yourself, ‘Can I feel each and every note?´ or  ‘Am I enjoying my sound?’. You can ask yourself any type of open question about sensation or expressive communication that helps to focus your attention, such as ´Can I hear the sound of the other players?´, or ‘Can I exaggerate the expressive qualities of the music?’ These questions encourage you to remain connected to yourself, your music, fellow players and your audience. It is important to apply these kinds of questions during practice, rehearsals and performance practice to discover the ones that work most effectively for you. 

Use positive statements

 It can also help to have a personal sensory and expressive statement or positive mantra, such as ‘Relax and enjoy the sound!’, or ‘Express the music!’ These mantras work best if they are focussed on the ‘now’ and use active, doing words. Apply flow questions and positive statements to keep in the moment and have more performance fun!

Performance preparation (PA)

Performance preparation should be an essential part of practicing. This involves mental exercises, when one imagines the performance situation itself including warm-up time and real situation simulations such as playing pieces through with others, little performances to friends or recording the program. It is essential to play pieces through without stopping so you are prepared for the performance. It is important to practice the performance-focus so that you are focusing on the musical communication instead of only the technical things. 

You need to think about all the details of the performance in advance.  For example: How does it feel when you see an advertisement for the concert? Are your clothes and shoes suitable for playing? Do you have plans for what to do on the day of the concert? Are you familiar with the concert hall and the backstage? Can you play all the pieces one after the other and do you have enough stamina to do it? Have you considered what your audience will be like and how you will react to it?  

Performance skills (GM)

Hard skills / Soft skills

Some tasks require utmost precision, these are known as hard skills. Other tasks require a flexible approach, these are known as soft skills. Identify what type of task you are working on and use the right tools to achieve it.  Hard skills are aimed at improving accuracy and reliability while soft skills are those associated with adaptability and inspiration. 

An effective strategy for developing adaptability in performance is to deliberately search for as many varied settings for performing as possible. Linked with this is a decision to prioritise the completion of the task (performance) ahead of an exact inventory of details previously worked on. 

By going back and forth between the performance and the practice modes, students can develop both the hard skills and the soft ones, without feeling like they are choosing one over the other. Communication and expression are also soft skills and they should be consciously incorporated in preparing for performance. 

Physical preparation  for a Performance (EJ)

You can enjoy being in good shape and well prepared in your performance if you have planned your physical and mental practicing and timed it correctly. Progressive practice by planning your physical practicing gradually increases your endurance and prepares you for more demanding competition and performance situations. The main aim of planning your practice is to get your body to recover properly and achieve better strength. When you have the experience of practicing periods and building up your strength, you also learn to plan your preparing and set the goals. Then you can have the best possible timing for your auditions/ competitions and concerts in the future.  

Performance planning with flow (EN)

Performance planning begins in the practise room and most of the preparation occurs in that context with an increase in connection to other relevant musicians and the concert venue as the performance draws nearer. This means that the great majority of planning is done during solitary practice. It is in this context that musicians develop their primary attitude and motivation for their tasks. Therefore it is extremely important that you have effective planning techniques to enable you to get the optimal benefit from your practice time.  

Five flow planning techniques

The five flow techniques help you plan successfully through a focus on relaxation strategies, sensual immersion, exploring for problem solving, imaginative ideas and most of all, enjoyment in your music making. In each of these areas it is important to set relevant and realistic goals to maintain your positive focus on achievable elements and to reduce larger less manageable tasks to smaller more realistic ones. There is always the risk that you may try to achieve too many things at once, or try to get things done in a hurried, ineffective way. This can happen especially as the performance draws nearer and you begin to feel constrained by a lack of time. Overburdening yourself or rushing will result in frustration, anxiety and tension which will ultimately inhibit optimal preparation. So, it is crucial for you to keep calmly checking that your goal selection is realistic for your time frame and that you are on track with all the details of your performance plan. Remember to also plan all practical aspects carefully such as clothing, transportation and food. 

Relaxed focus

For optimal performance, a relaxed focus is the most important element, so as you prepare for your performance, maintain your focus on relaxed physical sensations and expressive intentions and remind yourself of the clear goals you have set for the concert. Maintain a positive attitude and if you have created a positive performance mantra, keep repeating it to yourself to help you maintain focus. As you walk onto the stage, relax and centre yourself with deep breathing and imagine the musical expression you want so that you are still preparing in the optimal way right up until the first note!